Touchpads – A Page Out of the MacBook’s… Book

I was recently issued a MacBook at work to do some development in OS X. While I’ve generally looked beyond Apple hardware when it comes to computers, there was one major feature of the laptop that I just couldn’t get over. And as you probably guessed from the title, it’s the touchpad.

A laptop’s touchpad should be designed to maximize productivity when a mouse isn’t available or practical. Having to use a touchpad shouldn’t equate to more work than a mouse. In fact there are many cases where direct contact with the fingers allows for a more natural manipulation of software objects than a mouse controlling a pointer can.

The first point to address is size, and in the case of touchpads, size does matter. The comparison between the MacBook’s touchpad and what I know best, the touchpad of my Dell XPS M1330, is no contest. At 101mm * 48mm, the MacBook touchpad has twice the surface area as the M1330’s 63mm * 37mm touchpad. Perhaps more importantly, the width of the MacBook touchpad (which governs how far the finger can move laterally in one motion) is about 1.6X of the M1330. Furthermore, the M1330’s scroll zones take away from completely usable touchpad surface area, making it feel even more cramped. I won’t get into the MacBook Air’s even larger touchpad, but suffice to say, Apple understands the importance of making that input device as usable as possible.

MacBook versus M1330 touchpad

NOTE: Sizes are proportionally accurate

The size of the touchpad has  major implications for usability in a desktop environment. There’s logic behind the saying, ‘Didn’t have to lift a finger’. Constantly lifting the hand and finger to re-swipe at the pad is tiresome. On the other hand, increasing the sensitivity and cursor speed makes accurate movement more difficult. By increasing the size of the touchpad, sensitivity can be set at a reasonable level, but the user can still move across the width of the desktop in a single motion. While this seems like a simple function, too many notebook makers skimp on the size of the touchpad, making one of the most important laptop interfaces tedious to work with. This translates into a poorer immediate impression.

Aside from the touchpad’s size, two finger scrolling is probably the thing I miss most about the MacBook – my first instinct with the M1330 after using the MacBook was to try a two-finger scroll, obviously to no avail. While the scroll zones found on many PC notebook touchpads serve the same purpose, the two-finger scroll is much more fluid and doesn’t take away from an already small touchpad, since it does not require a dedicated scroll zone.

What do I mean by ‘fluid’? With a single finger, stability becomes an issue and it can be difficult to scroll accurately. However, two fingers provide significantly better stability, which means finer motions can be attempted successfully.

Synaptics has multi-finger gesture functionality built into many of its newer devices, but has not enabled most of them in Windows. Under various Linux distributions, it’s possible to enable these functions, such as two-finger scrolling. Although not enabled, if you look through the Windows registry, you’ll find interesting keys relating to things like 2FingerGestures and 3FingerGestures. Earlier this year, Synaptics announced several new touchpad features, including the multi-touch gesture, ‘Pinch’ (much like what you’d do to zoom in and out with an iPhone). More importantly, the feature additions are already supported by the hardware, which makes me wonder why Synaptics hasn’t enabled the features in a software (driver) update.

So here’s my plea to all notebook makers out there: If you have space for a larger, more functional touchpad, make it so. It’s a shame to have to carry around a wireless mouse to make user input truly pain-free on a portable computer.

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